On July 26th 1989, Gabrielle Lavallée lay her hand out on a table so her lover and master, Roch Theriault, could inspect a slightly stiff little finger. He stabbed her through the hand with a hunting knife, pinning her to the table, and went to get himself another beer. Over the course of the evening and on into the night, Roch continued drinking, pausing every once in a while to shave pieces of flesh off Gabrielle’s arm with a carpet knife.
She remained conscious throughout.
By dawn, her arm had been whittled down to the bone. It would take another of the master’s ‘operations’ to remove ‘gangrene’ (and part of her left breast) and a knock to the head with the side of an axe before she finally blacked out. She didn’t see the inside of a hospital until August 16th.
But she survived.
Summer 1994, Port Elizabeth, South Africa. A woman named Alison was abducted by a pair of Satanists who were looking for ‘a beautiful woman with a nice car’ to abduct, rape, and murder. They found her as she was pulling into a parking bay outside her flat. That night she was taken into the bush, sexually assaulted, disembowelled, and her throat slit so savagely that she was almost decapitated. She was left for dead.
Alone in a clearing—and still conscious, despite her injuries—she gathered her intestines up in her jacket, held her head up by the hair to keep it from dropping back between her shoulders, got to her feet and walked to the nearest road.
Only then did she lie down, and close her eyes.
But she survived.
I’m not sharing these stories here for their shock value. I’m sharing them because within their power to horrify, they also have the power to be profoundly reassuring. Here we have torture, depravity, acts of the unthinkable. We’re talking about violations, forced amputations, sadism, all rooted in a total disregard for human life. But hey—guess what. We are not talking about death. Nope. We are talking about survival. We hear stories like this and gape at this single astounding fact: all this happened, and yet nobody died. Doctors talk about medical miracles. Spiritualists talk about the persevering soul. Whatever wows you here, it still basically equates to one common thought: If someone survived that, then maybe I won’t die so easily, either!
And that’s the core of it. In the face of all those other stories we hear about senseless, sudden ends like brain aneurisms, cot death, fast-spreading cancers, even (and this one really really got to me when I was a kid) spontaneous human combustion, people like Alison and Gabrielle help us feel a little less mortal. A little closer to invincible. They give us hope that, when it comes down to the moment, maybe death isn’t always quite so decided. Or that just maybe, the worst isn’t really all that bad after all.
Death, no matter how it happens, is terrifying to us because as living beings we’re hard-wired to avoid it at all costs. I’m pretty sure that no matter who you ask, pretty much everyone will stipulate that if they have any choice in the matter, they would want it to be as quick and painless as possible. No argument there, but life isn’t always so kind. So what does it mean to face your worst fears? And what can we gain from it?
I grew up with three boys. While the four of us were for the most part inseparable, they did go through spates of some pretty sadistic behaviour (sorry guys!) regarding the girl in their lives. Being South African kids, we spent a lot of our free time in and around water. Swimming pools, dams, rivers, you name it. ‘Let’s drown Karen!’ was of course one of these hilarious little games played at my expense. And as a result of a few too many desperate seconds spent underwater with someone holding me there, I grew up convinced that drowning would have to be the ultimate worst way to go. The flurry, the fight, the panic, the ache in your chest. The desperate need to open your mouth and breathe—just breathe. The cruelty in knowing that relief is just overhead, and just out of reach, shimmering above you. I love water and nothing can keep me away from it, but this has haunted me.
(I should probably also mention here that my older brother, he of the heavy hand, did in fact save me from drowning a few years later when we were in our teens. Otherwise I just know he’s going to be rather unhappy with me for writing about this. Thank you, dear brother, I have not forgotten!)
Then one night I caught a documentary on a major flood that struck somewhere in the States. One of the survivors interviewed said, “I can tell you that drowning is maybe the best way to go. Once I gave up the fight, I was breathing again. I was breathing water, like air. And the panic was gone. I remember thinking, I’m okay with this. If I’m going to die like this, this is totally okay.”
I cannot begin to express the comfort I got from this. The idea that in that moment, water can switch from friend to foe and then back to friend again. That even in these desperate cases, death can come in a way that feels more peaceful than it does violent.
Gabrielle and Alison, incredibly, say something similar. They both describe being somehow in and out of their own bodies at the same time, deep in a kind of conscious trance. And within it, they describe a place that is soothing, and loving, and warm.
Whether you’re cut apart piece by piece, or disembowelled, or drowned, or simply wither away in an old age home, maybe that’s true for all modes of death. Maybe the Reaper himself can shift from foe to friend, and no matter how ragged his scythe is on that particular day, he’ll pull you into eternal sleep with more peace than violence.
Let’s hope that even if it is the worst, and even if we remain conscious, we’ll find the Reaper can still be kind.